Let's give DePaul credit for their 83-75 win last night, which was not as close as the final score indicates.
The Blue Demons have more talent (and veterans) than St. John's, but the talent often plays in a disjointed manner. For example, Tommy Hamilton decides to shoot long jumpers, Myke Henry hunts points, Billy Garrett Jr. overdribbles, and they look like a team that doesn't know each other. When in reality, they're not selfish, bad kids - they're all trying a bit too hard to be the hero.
DePaul took the lesson from last week's loss and played with enough consistency and intelligence to attack the Red Storm's obvious flaws.
Last night was the putrid taste of ineptitude and basketball youth for St. John's, played out in front of a lackluster crowd on a cold Chicago night. And after a series of promising games, the effort and execution of St. John's raises some questions.
Was it that they took the opponent lightly, after having beaten them a week prior? ("Guys! We have their number! Let's go out and do the same thing, they won't adjust!")
Was it the opposite, that the team was tight about a realistic chance at a second Big East win, overthinking instead of playing on instinct? That looked to be a culprit on some early poor passes, like a flip to Felix Balamou, who wasn't looking, or an inbounds pass that was to a zigging Ellison but Ellison zagged, if you will.
Or did bad habits and bad possessions pile up, leaving the players feeling the weight of needing to get the points all back at once?
A lot of the same issues popped up in the game as they have all year. Even more than the infusion of talent next year, the team of mostly unheralded, non-top-100 freshmen need to improve in the offseason. Three takeaways from last night's game, below.
Mmmmmmmmeeeaaaatttt (or, the slim shape of youth)
Last night, DePaul finally used its one advantage - paint-sized muscle - to exploit the skinny St. John's squad underneath.
The Blue Demons went 12/16 on dunks and layups, 5/7 on jump shots... and 2/8 outside of the arc. Big men Rashaun Stimage, Myke Henry and Tommy Hamilton combined to go 11/14 , and only four of those attempts were recorded as "jump shots" or three-pointers". DePaul scored 24 points in the paint, and St. John's had to adjust the defense to keep them out... which didn't work.
The sequence that gave DePaul the lead for good came after the 12:30 mark, where DePaul's Rashaun Stimage scored six straight points for the Demons - offset by Malik Ellison's lone three-pointer of the night. St. John's had been shading inside to try to help their paint defenders, but may have over compensated - which allowed DePaul's guards to drive inside with impunity.
And watching DePaul attack the same weakness brought out a familiar reaction of the frustrated - rushing. Rushing to attack, attacking individually, trying to be the player who stops the shot.
Obviously, the players care enough to not let the same thing happen again, and the coaches care enough to ask their players to shade inside.
But defensively, each current player on the roster needs to be a better individual defender.
Because a guard who can slow down drives allows shot blockers to get into position.
Because a big man who can hold position won't consistently allow deep position to the likes of Rashaun Stimage.
Because guards who can defend in transition make fluid offense difficult for the opponent.
All of these can improve with experience, strength and practice. And they will not necessarily magically improve with new personnel; those players also need strength and practice.
Malik Ellison, +1
Ellison went 1/3 in the game, all in the first half, but also 9/10 from the free throw line, and added six assists. His defense had some solid moments, but offensively, his ballhandling was fairly good. And moreover, his ability to attack with size and hesitation moves earned him a number of shots at the free throw line.
He's coming along nicely.
Federico Mussini, wearing down?
We don't like to focus on the negatives in this year, with so many players obviously in need of a developmental year.
But with the exception of a free throw festival against DePaul nine days ago, Mussini has squarely struck a wall since the second Marquette game. In that game, he scored 15 of his 19 points from the field.
Last night's game - 0 points on 0/5 shooting - has Mussini held to single figures in eight of nine games. He has shot under 30% on three-pointers in each game except at home to Butler and the 1/3 performance against DePaul.
Mussini is struggling, relegated to fewer minutes as the staff figures out how he can be most successful.